It’s not supposed to come easily. Otherwise, what would be the point, right? After wasting two chances to close out this series with Denver, the Lakers came into a do-or-die Game 7 and reminded everyone, probably including themselves, what happens when they play with the right attitude and stick to the game plan. You know, similar to how they played 3 games ago when they went up 3-1! They couldn’t take back those two embarrassing losses, so they did exactly the only thing they could do. Carpe diem. Seize the day.
Unfortunately, Denver did the same, refusing to go away even when they got down by as much as 16 points in the third quarter. That the Lakers, this season, have made a bad habit of attaining and then giving away big leads, it wasn’t the biggest surprise that the Nuggets fell behind by such a large deficit and then took a 4-point lead to begin the final quarter.
If they’ve learned anything in this series, it’s that Denver isn’t a team who gives up, so that run 22-9 to end the third shouldn’t have surprised the home team. The Lakers didn’t allow themselves to get down for too long though, not when the Bigs were finally starting to live up to their nickname, Metta World Peace was back from serving his suspension and Steve Blake came off the benching swinging. That four-point Denver lead quickly disappeared when Blake and MWP hit two in a row from downtown. After that, the Nuggets tied the score on a handful of occasions, but it was all Lakers until the final buzzer
Steve Blake – “I hate Steve Blake tonight,” George Karl said. “But I love him as a player.” Coach Karl said when this series began that he didn’t want any wild cards, and Steve Blake, well, he was a wild one tonight. Getting to the podium twice in one series as a reserve – take that Lamar Odom, who I don’t remember getting to the podium much even when the Lakers won back-to-back championships. Blake was spectacular tonight, to say the very least. His first shot was a long three, after a pass from Andrew Bynum with the shot clock close to 0.0. He followed that up with a mid-range jumper and at halftime, he had 11 points while the entire Nuggets bench had 12. Each time the Lakers needed to extend the lead, or needed a hoop, there was Blake, standing in the corner with ne’er a navy blue jersey to contest his shot. He finished with 19 points on 7-11, 5-6 from three(!), a pair of rebounds, three assists, two steals and some scrappy defense on Ty Lawson in the fourth quarter, who went 0-5 on Blake’s watch in the final 12 minutes. “Steve’s insanely competitive,” Kobe Bryant said of his teammate. “I knew Game 7, he’d be ready for that challenge.” Boy was he ever!
Metta World Peace – Welcome back, MWP! You were sorely, sorely missed! As has been the case for Metta since he became a Laker, defense is his calling card, and scoring is gravy. After spending the previous seven games watching his teammates duke it out on the floor without him, Metta came back, gravy boat and all. His presence can be instantly seen on the field goal percentage of the players he guarded: Danilo Gallinari, three points on 1-9; Andre Miller, three points on 1-10. He had 15 points on a not-so-hot 5-15, but three of those were timely three pointers, he had five rebounds, handed out a pair of assists, had four steals, two blocks and whole slew of other things that can’t be itemized on a stat line. His long arms and quick hands were all over the Denver Nuggets’ offense and his energy, well, it was signature MWP.
Playing Big – After failing to play with any passion in the Lakers’ last two losses, the seven-foot tandem of Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol came ready to make up for their previous no-shows. Andrew Bynum, who continued to struggle from the field, due in large part to Denver’s great defense on him, didn’t let his lacking offense hinder the rest of his game. He finished with 16 points, 18 huge rebounds, an assist, steal and six blocks. The key to his game – engagement, engagement, engagement. He had two double-doubles in those two losses, but it barely felt like he even played. Tonight, his presence (mind and body) were there and Denver felt it. Pau Gasol, even moreso than Bynum, had a lot of ground to make up for his Game 6 disappointment. No captain of any team should put up such meager stats and his three points and three rebounds in Denver were as meager as he could get. Tonight, his efforts and his passion were unmistakably there. 23 points on 9-19, 17 rebounds, six assists, five personal fouls (which means he wasn’t afraid of contact), a steal, four blocks and a singular turnover. They make the difference in every game and George Karl said it best: “Power won over pace … size won over speed.”
Kobe Bryant – He tried to do everything in the last two games because he wasn’t getting much from anyone else, but tonight, Bryant was afforded the luxury of a relatively easy, all around game because he wasn’t working alone. He did everything in this game but rebound the ball (just one board). He scored (17 points on 7-16), made plays (eight assists and a slew of passes that led to assists) and he even blocked a shot. His timing, most of all, is always key and never shows up on the box score. With 35 seconds left in the fourth and the Lakers needing just one more dagger to seal the game, he leaned forward then back, there in the corner, Arron Afflalo guarding him closely as he’s done all series, then rose up to hit a three-pointer with a hand in his face. Swish, of course. As he ran back on defense, he slapped hands with Justin Timberlake who sat courtside.
Second Chances – The Lakers had four less rebounds than the Nuggets, and just one more on the offensive end, but they converted those offensive boards to 23 points compared to Denver’s 12.
3-point shooting – Not known for the their offense from long-distance, the Lakers hit 11-24 from behind the arc, 46%. That is all thanks to Metta World Peace (4-11), Kobe Bryant (2-2) and hot hand Steve Blake (5-6).
Matt Barnes and Ramon Sessions – Matt Barnes hasn’t been the same punch off the bench since his ankle injury against OKC in the Lakers’ second to last regular season game. His jumper is clearly not happening for him, but he hasn’t gotten to the rim as often either. Unfortunately, there isn’t much time for him to heal as the first game of the next series is Monday. If he can somehow get the opportunities to cut to the basket, he can help with the offense a great deal. Sessions didn’t do much tonight, just four points on 2-8, 0-4 from three. Coach Mike Brown opted to stick with the productive Steve Blake and didn’t use his normal point guard tandem as he’s had to do with MWP out.
Free throws – The Lakers got to the free throw line 23 times and missed eight. Especially in a series-defining game, every point counts. Had they made half of those misses, they probably would have been in better shape.
Lost Lead – …again. When Denver scores, they score in bunches and runs. If the Lakers are ever able to build a double-digit lead against the likes of OKC, they better hang on to it, because if they think the Nuggets can go on high-energy runs, they’ve got a whole other thing comin’ with the Thunder.
It was a series that ran longer than it should have, but it was a means to an end, and if the end meant advancing to the next round, there’s not whole lot to complain about because going back in time to change the journey isn’t an option. The only hope is that the Lakers take this series in which they faced a whole slew of adversity, and learn from it in order to improve on the next one. The Thunder are a different beast, but work just as fast as the Nuggets. Round 2 – FIGHT!